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A Necessary Apology Delivered Too Soon

Today the Defence Minister Stephen Smith stepped up to the Despatch Box to apologise for decades of cases of reported abuse, mostly of a sexual nature, within the Australian Defence Force. The issue is as much about the fact that the abuse was institutionalised as it was about the response which has been found to have often been poor, even non-existent.

This morning too, in the wake of Stephen Smiths apology on behalf of the Department of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force, David Hurley, made a similar televised apology.

In terms of significant political issues which have arisen, discussed or been implemented during this, the 43rd parliament, the response was sensibly bipartisan.

There was no questioning of the validity, the reasons and consequences of making the apology as their had been with the indigenous apology. The Opposition Defence spokesperson in the House of Representatives just rose and responded with an equally compassionate and heartfelt statement of regret for events that had transpired. That was followed by a pledge to stamp out institutionalised abuse and statement that all that can be done to cut down abuse will be done.

The apology itself was decades in the making. The delivery of the apology however, in the scheme of things, was swift. In fact the apology was made too fast. On the same morning the apology was announced, Mr Smith walked into the parliament to say sorry to those in the ADF that have been the victim of abuse over recent decades.

So often, issues around the timing of events and policies have plagued the Gillard Government. Again today, timing failed the Labor Party on this issue.

There is no debating  that an apology should not have been made. It is the least the government could do after a long period of institutionalised abuse that was either ignored or wrongfully accepted as part of the organisation’s culture. But that apology should certainly have not been made today, even though reports surfaced late last week that such a statement to parliament was firmly on the political agenda.

Victims and their families should have had days or weeks’ notice that an apology was being made, not just hours and an apology even later today should never have been contemplated. Those who have suffered should have been afforded the time to organise travelling to Canberra for the apology, just as those who have been apologised to in the past for other wrongs were.

If those who had endured abuse did not want to attend, they should have at least been given advanced notice that the apology was to be given, so that they could make arrangements to watch Stephen Smith’s speech at home or elsewhere or listen to it on the radio or internet.

Instead, numerous victims will arrive home today to find that their suffering was acknowledged without many of them knowing or having little time for necessary arrangements to be made in order to view Stephen Smith’s apology. Countless current and former members of the defence force will hear the words of Stephen Smith second-hand through sound bites or perhaps in full, though still in replay, on the news and on websites.

It is surprising too that the speech by Mr Smith came before all the inquiries into abuse in the Australian Defence Force had finished. We have already had three separate investigations into different yet related matters.

Today, the Minister for Defence announced that there would be an independent taskforce to investigate the 750 “plausible” claims of abuse which were made to the DLA Piper review. The review by the global law-firm was one of the three investigations set up in response to the Skype sex abuse scandal. The minister announced that the taskforce would investigate individual claims, including attempting to identify alleged perpetrators.

Compensation of up to $50,000 for each valid claim has been offered if claimants waive the right to pursue their claims through all other legal and judicial processes. If alleged victims decide not to seek compensation, the special group led by former WA Supreme Court judge Len R0berts-Smith would decide whether or not to refer individual claims to the authorities.

So the battle is not over for victims. The process continues, but is nearing an end for some. The emotional wounds however will remain forever more.

You cannot help think that an apology, at the very least should have been delayed for weeks, maybe months.

The one certainty is that apology was needed. It was however delivered too soon.

A Broad and National Royal Commission the Only Way

Finally, it seems that a significant national inquiry into what appears to be widespread abuse within the clergy is near. Calls  New South Wales has just announced an inquiry and Victoria has already set aside twelve months for an inquiry of their own. But these state-based inquiries are too limited in scope and there is little doubt that the problem crosses state borders. There has been so much focus too on the Catholic Church, the main source of such horrendous allegations, but a broader approach in that sense too is necessary.

Both the New South Wales and Victorian inquiries are incredibly limited. In the case of NSW, announced last week after a Lateline interview with a state police officer, the investigation will be limited to the allegations made by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox during an interview on the ABC news program. The events in question are limited to a specific region in the state and surround an alleged police cover-up of very disturbing incidents.

In the case of Victoria, their inquiry is wider in scope, but far from a powerful royal commission. Victoria’s sex abuse is being investigated by a parliamentary inquiry but is not limited in scope like the New South Wales’ iteration will be.

The parliamentary inquiry in Victoria covers abuse in all religious and non-government organisations, not just the Catholic Church or a specific region within the state. However, like the newly announced investigation in NSW, the committee inquiring into these matters does not have the extensive power that a royal commission commands.

There really now, more than ever, is a need for a full royal commission into child abuse and it must be a national one. We have passed the point of no return. There is not one option left to deal with a large number of alleged indiscretions except for holding a royal commission.

For some time now those calls have been met with resistance despite a significant number of cases coming to light where there was abuse, mostly within the Catholic Church, but also a wider array of religious and other institutions.

Most of that resistance has come from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is the main denomination at the centre of the bulk of the allegations that have been raised in the public domain of abuse and inaction.

Worse still, it is also alleged that there has been a systemic cover-up, the active burying of cases involving incredibly devious acts of sexual depravity and violence against Australian children. All for the maintenance of power.

It is incredibly sad, indeed ridiculous and very concerning that the church believes itself above the law. Child abuse, any abuse is a crime and as such there should be absolutely no tolerance of reports that it is occurring. It absolutely beggars belief that anyone would not report alleged indecency, in favour of dealing with it in-house. Going to police is the one and only option.

Australia’s politicians have been way too slow to act. We have known about a number of cases of abuse and inaction on the part of the church for years and yet, until this year, little had been done anywhere in the country.

It would appear, on the face of it, that our politicians fear the influence of not just the Catholic Church, but also the wider religious movement. But that fear is incredibly ill-founded and terribly misplaced.

Religious movements are no longer anywhere near as powerful as they were. They would like to think they are and the impression of ongoing power remains. The simple fact, however, is that they are not.

In any case, politicians should not fear any real or perceived influence that religion does or does not possess in Australia. The lives of Australian children are far more important than any political benefit. Power should not corrupt to the extent that sexual abuse is ignored by MP’s across the country. Sadly, it just might, at least until the political pressure to act against these allegations becomes too strong.

People are experiencing more hurt suffering in comparative silence. The vast majority who have had acts of sexual violence perpetrated against them would want some form of closure, some acknowledgement that their pain and suffering is real and needs to be dealt with by a proper judicial process, not forgotten about or buried within an organisation.

It is understandable the visceral anger and hatred directed at institutions and the individuals that represent them, for having failed in the basic duties of a citizen, organisationally and individually when it comes to the law. People do deserve much better treatment at the hands of those caring for and providing guidance to impressionable and vulnerable young minds.

Unfortunately, some of those understandably outraged by the actions of the Catholic Church and other religious organisations have called for the tax exempt status of these organisations to be revoked as some form of punishment,

Any kind of remedy must be civil or criminal and should not extend to taking away the tax-free status of religious organisations that still, despite their massive and unjustifiable failings in relation to protection of children within the church, do extensive and helpful charity work.

What is abundantly clear is that a wide-ranging and national inquiry is needed into abuse within the church. The states have either failed to do anything at all or have not gone anywhere near far enough in prosecuting this matter.

A royal commission must now happen and should certainly not be limited to the Catholic Church. All denominations must be examined in a broad inquiry without fear or favour.

Support for the inquiry needs to be across partisan lines. As of this afternoon all political parties, except for the ALP and most Independent MP’s have pledged support for an inquiry. A large and growing number of Labor MP’s have however voiced support for a royal commission.

It would appear that the momentum towards a national inquiry into sex abuse within the church is now inexorable and that can only be a good thing,

Sadly though, a lot of pain has been endured during the unnecessarily slow process.

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